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Middle Schools in Portland go to Standards Based Report Cards

Schools shift gears on grades
In fall, Portland middle schools will join elementaries in using a standards-based report card that tracks performance and effort
The Oregonian 03/29/04

No more A's, B's or C's for Portland middle school students.

Starting in fall, all 17 middle schools will give report cards that tell parents whether students meet grade-level expectations in writing, reading, math, science and other subjects. They'll get separate marks for the effort they put into class projects, participation and homework.

The standards-based report card will give parents a more accurate and detailed account of how their child is doing, said Evelyn Brzezinski, assessment director for Portland Public Schools. It will report whether the student meets, exceeds or doesn't meet a set of performance standards for a given subject, she said.

Standards-based report cards aren't new in Portland -- they've been used in elementary schools and a few middle schools for several years -- but they will be new to most middle school parents. And word about the changes has set off a flurry of e-mails and phone calls to school board members and district administrators.

Ed Gorman, a parent of two Gregory Heights Middle School students, said parents haven't been given much information about the new report card. His experience with a four-page, standards-based report card when his children were at Rose City Park Elementary School wasn't reassuring, he said. "It was confusing to parents and hard to read," he said.

Gorman said parents also are worried that letter grades will disappear from high school report cards, leaving students at a loss when colleges ask for transcripts with grades.

But there are no plans to dump letter grades in high school, district officials said. And they say parents will like the revamped report card once they get used to it.

For one thing, it spells out clearly what areas of learning a student has mastered -- or not. For example, in science, the report card indicates whether a student knows the traits of an organism or how living things change over time. The current report card gives a grade in science, with no details of what the student has learned.

Second, the new report card separates effort from performance. That's a good thing, said Tom Pickett, who has piloted standards-based report cards at three Portland middle schools.

"We have been using grades to measure outcomes, but we found that grades have a mixture of student performance and effort, and that mixture is different teacher by teacher," said Pickett, interim principal of Hosford Middle School in Southeast Portland. "We can celebrate both, but we don't want students with high grade-point averages who can't meet the minimum performance levels in the state standards."

Third, Pickett said assessments do a better job of comparing students and schools. A student meeting standards in math computation at Lane Middle School, for example, will have mastered the same set of skills as a student who gets the same rating at Jackson Middle School across town.

Sometimes, he said, teachers, in awarding grades, have been influenced by a student's effort. Parents who thought their children were doing fine have sometimes been shocked when their students crashed on state assessment tests.

"What the report card does is separate performance and effort, giving them both value," Pickett said.

For academic performance, the new quarterly report card gives students an E for "exceeds," M for "meets," C for "close" and N for does "not" yet meet grade level expectations. An asterisk may be added if a student is showing progress. In the separate "effort to learn" category, it gives an A for "always" trying, O for "often," T for "sometimes" and S for "seldom."

Brzezinski said both the performance and effort categories have hundreds of possible comments. Each comment and focus will carry a number, so that non-English-speaking parents, using a guide to the numbers, can get translations in Spanish, Russian, Chinese or Vietnamese.

The revised report card is rooted in Oregon's move since the 1990s to a standards-based education, which established detailed standards for what students should know and be able to demonstrate in literature, writing, math and science. Student knowledge is tested in state assessments each spring, and schools are rated on state report cards largely on the number of their students who meet standards.

When parents and teachers found that some students didn't meet benchmarks on state tests yet were getting A's and B's in class, the district decided it was time to move to a new way of grading, Brzezinski said. Portsmouth and Hosford middle schools and 26 elementary schools volunteered to be first. By 2001, six middle schools and all 65 elementary schools had switched to the new system.

Other school districts have tried to tie their report cards to standards, but Brzezinski said Portland is the first she is aware of to eliminate letter grades in middle school.

Brzezinski said parents frequently have two questions about the new system: What happens to the middle school honor roll? And how can students be placed accurately in high school without a middle school grade-point average?

Hosford has dealt with the honor roll question by honoring students who put extraordinary effort into their schoolwork. And the school has a Principal's List, similar to a dean's list in college, for students with outstanding academic records.

As for placing students, Brzezinski said, high school teachers don't rely on middle school grades; instead, they use student scores on achievement tests and recommendations from middle school counselors and teachers

The new report card at Hosford is a big improvement, longtime math teacher Cheri McIntosh said. "You can be much more accurate in feedback to parents," she said. "You can separate effort from academics. Both things should be valued."

Sam Parsons, 12, a seventh-grader, said she likes the grading system at Hosford better than the letter grades she got at Environmental Middle School, where she used to attend. "It tells you straight-to-the-point how well you are doing," she said.

Gorman, the Gregory Heights parent, attended a recent school board task force meeting at which the new report card was discussed. He said the mock-up he was shown was a big improvement over the one his children got when they attended Rose City Park Elementary. But he thinks the district should have started earlier to inform parents about what's in store.

Brzezinski said the middle schools are working on plans to explain the report cards at meetings for parents later this spring.

Steven Carter: 503-221-8521; stevencarter@news.oregonian.com

George Sheridan